The Curse of The Tallest Tower

Gensler's twisting "Dragon" design for the Shanghai Tower, with a transparent facade, was chosen in June 2008.
Gensler’s twisting “Dragon” design for the Shanghai Tower, with a transparent facade, was chosen in June 2008.
Gensler’s twisting “Dragon” design for the Shanghai Tower, with a transparent facade, was chosen in June 2008. [/caption]Gargantuan plans have reached completion in Lujiazui, where the Chinese powers that be have put engineers to work on the mind-boggling skyscraper that is the Shanghai Tower.

Since the tower’s construction -‘topping out’ status was completed in 2014 – this behemoth of a building measures a whooping great 632 meters, meaning that it not only towers above the Jinmao Tower (421m) and Shanghai World Financial Centre (492m) immediately next door to it, but is also more than 120 meters taller than the 101 Building in Taipei (509m), which currently holds the title of tallest building in East Asia.

It has certainly put smiles back on the faces of the members of the Chinese architectural community that feel size really matters. However, it is interesting to note that the Shanghai Tower never aimed to become the tallest building in the world.

That title will continue to belong to the Burj Khalifa in the United Arab Emirates, which has been laughing down at its opponents from the clouds since its completion in 2009 from a dizzy-inducing height of 828 meters.

Since Shanghai has recently built the world’s longest trans-oceanic bridge, the world’s longest metro system and is clearly very keen on superlatives, one can’t help but wonder why they aren’t also aiming to build the world’s tallest tower as well.

One possible explanation as to why the Chinese authorities have resisted the temptation to compete with Dubai is that they give credence to the economic theory most commonly referred to as the “Curse Of The Tallest Tower”. According to this theory, man’s attempts to construct the world’s tallest buildings right through from Babel to the Burj, have resulted in economic disaster. However, if this is the case, what the Chinese authorities may have failed to recognise are the larger economic truths that have given substance to this myth.

Economists have long since acknowledged that there is often a correlation between towering hubris and financial ruin since the commissioning of enormous engineering projects often occur during periods of over-investment and excessive expansion. Illustrating this theory, they most often cite extreme examples such as the following:

1.The completion of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings in the late 1920s, which coincided with the beginning of the Great Depression.
2.The completion of Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers in 1997, which was immediately followed by the Asian Financial Crisis.
3.The completion of the Burj Khalifa in 2009, which was immediately followed by the Dubai debt crisis.

However, the fact that economists usually refer to the world’s tallest buildings as a means of dramatically illustrating their theory does not mean that the same idea cannot be applied to non-superlative examples of exuberant engineering projects.

The average housing price in China tripled between 2005 and 2009, and in April 2011 a report came out claiming that 64 million apartments in China are still standing empty. Perhaps then, rather than simply taking the “Curse Of The World’s Tallest Tower” at face value, the Chinese authorities should therefore think more about the economic dangers of excessive investment that make this superstitious belief an authentic economic barometer.

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